Okinawan people

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Okinawan people
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Okinawa Prefecture1,000,000+
 Japan (other)300,000+
 United States160,000[1]
Okinawan, Kunigami, Japanese
Ryukyuan religion, Buddhism, Shintoism, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama, Yonaguni, Japanese, Ainu

The Okinawan people (Okinawan: 沖縄人, Uchinānchu) are a Ryukyuan ethnic group native to the Okinawa Islands of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.



Okinawans mainly descend from the Jōmon people, who were hunter-gatherers that lived in both mainland Japan and the Ryukyu Islands. The Yayoi people who migrated into the region around 2,000 years ago had more of a cultural influence on Okinawa's inhabitants rather than a genetic one.[2]

Gusuku Period[edit]

The Gusuku Period started in the 12th century. It is defined by when the Okinawans shifted from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one, as well as when local lords known as the Aji ruled petty kingdoms throughout the islands.[3]

Sanzan Period[edit]

By the 14th century, these Aji-owned domains morphed into three kingdoms: Nanzan, Chūzan and Hokuzan. The Ryukyuans started to conduct trade with China during this time.[3]

Ryukyu Kingdom[edit]

In the 15th century, the leader of Chūzan defeated both Nanzan and Hokuzan, causing the unification of Okinawa.[3] The kingdom was renamed into the Ryukyu Kingdom. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom annexed the Amami, Miyako and Yaeyama Islands.[4]

The Ryukyu Kingdom gained tributary status to China and conducted even more trade with its neighbors.[4]

Satsuma Invasion of 1609[edit]

On March 4, 1609, the Satsuma Domain of Japan invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom, winning the war by May.[5] Satsuma annexed the Amami Islands while the rest of the Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal state.[5]


The Ryukyu Kingdom would later become a vassal state of the Japanese Empire, which had previously took control of Satsuma. In 1872, the Ryukyu Kingdom was made into the Ryukyu Domain, which only lasted until 1879, when Japan fully annexed it.

Okinawa Prefecture[edit]

After the Ryukyu Domain was annexed by Japan, its lands were incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture. The Amami Islands were already a part of Kagoshima Prefecture, due to it being previously controlled by Satsuma, one of the predecessor domains of Kagoshima.

Under Imperial Japanese rule, Okinawan culture was heavily suppressed, with the intent of assimilating the Okinawans into Japan.[6] These assimilation policies also targeted the other Ryukyuans.

Discrimination was very common against Okinawans in mainland Japan. Many businesses refused to give them service and a lot of Japanese viewed them as inferior.

American Administration[edit]

The United States occupied Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu Islands after defeating the Japanese Empire in World War II. In 1950, Okinawa was incorporated into the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands. The American administration tried to revive Okinawan culture, though it failed due to Okinawan resentment towards the U.S. military bases there.

Reversion to Japan[edit]

In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan as a result of the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Okinawa Prefecture was reinstated and exists to this day.



Okinawan and Kunigami are the two indigenous languages of the Okinawans. UNESCO lists both of them as "definitely endangered",[7][8] with most of their speakers being elderly.[9] The younger generations tend to speak Japanese instead, primarily due to assimilation policies that suppressed Okinawan culture.[6]

The Japanese language spoken in Okinawa is its own variety known as Okinawan Japanese[9] and has influences from both Okinawan and Kunigami.


The native Ryukyuan religion of Okinawa involves ancestor worship and animistic practices. Its beliefs were influenced by other religions that were spread throughout East Asia.[10] Other religions practiced in Okinawa include Buddhism, Shintoism and to a lesser extent, Christianity.


  1. ^ a b c Mitchell, Jon (October 22, 2016). "Welcome home, Okinawa" – via Japan Times Online.
  2. ^ Bendjilali, Nasrine; Hsueh, Wen-Chi; He, Qimei; Willcox, D. Craig; Nievergelt, Caroline M.; Donlon, Timothy A.; Kwok, Pui-Yan; Suzuki, Makoto; Willcox, Bradley J. (2014-12-01). "Who Are the Okinawans? Ancestry, Genome Diversity, and Implications for the Genetic Study of Human Longevity From a Geographically Isolated Population". The Journals of Gerontology: Series A. 69 (12): 1474–1484. doi:10.1093/gerona/glt203. ISSN 1079-5006. PMC 4271021. PMID 24444611.
  3. ^ a b c "Okinawa's History INDEX". Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  4. ^ a b "MOFA: Okinawa: History (The Ryukyu Dynasty/The Ryukyu Dynasty under Feudal Japan) (Kyushu-Okinawa Summit 2000)". Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  5. ^ a b "Invasion of Ryukyu - SamuraiWiki". Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  6. ^ a b "Assimilation Practices in Okinawa". Retrieved 2019-10-18.
  7. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger: Okinawan". Retrieved 2019-10-18.
  8. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger: Kunigami". Retrieved 2019-10-18.
  9. ^ a b Heinrich, Patrick (2014-08-25). "Use them or lose them: There's more at stake than language in reviving Ryukyuan tongues". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2019-10-18.
  10. ^ "What Is The Ryukyuan Religion?". WorldAtlas. Retrieved 2019-10-21.